By Tristan Reed
With the escape of infamous Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera in July, some speculated that his Sinaloa-based group, the Sinaloa Federation, would rise to power once again. But two months later, fissures and infighting among drug cartels continue unabated, proving that even Guzman is powerless to reverse the inevitable Balkanization of Mexico's drug trade. Ultimately, the forces that drive the evolution of organized crime are simply more powerful than any single crime boss. In fact, since Stratfor's last update in April, there has been little change in the key trends shaping Mexico's organized crime landscape.
This does not mean the territorial lines of Mexico's crime groups have not shifted, or that drug-related turf wars have subsided since the first quarter of 2015. But the trajectories of Mexico's three regional organized crime umbrellas — groups based in Sinaloa state, Tamaulipas state and Tierra Caliente — have remained constant.
Los Zetas, a Tamaulipas-based crime group, had actually expanded into Zacatecas state at the Gulf cartel's expense in an attempt to reclaim lost territory. However, the arrests of several of their leaders during the first quarter of 2015 have made it difficult for the group to consolidate its hold over criminal activity in Tamaulipas. Groups that once fell under the same crime group as Guzman are now operating autonomously and in some areas, such as in Baja California Sur, Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua and Sinaloa states, are violently competing with one another. Meanwhile, organized crime based in the Tierra Caliente region continues the steady rise it began in 2010 as crime groups fragment and the Tierra Caliente-based Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion expands into their domains.
Sinaloa-Based Organized Crime
Soon after Guzman's escape, several English- and Spanish-language outlets predicted Guzman might consolidate control over organized crime in Mexico. After demonstrating his powerful networks, relationships with Mexican authorities and incredible wealth by orchestrating his jail break, it was thought that Guzman might take advantage of divisions and infighting among Mexican drug cartels and take over the drug trade.
However, prior to his February 2014 arrest, Guzman's Sinaloa Federation was already starting to fall apart. In western Chihuahua, particularly near the state's borders with Durango and Sinaloa states, criminal groups once under the Sinaloa Federation umbrella were clashing sporadically. In Tijuana, where drug-related violence began to climb again in 2013, virtually all organized crime-related violence was occurring among independent organizations that once fell under the top-down structures of the Arellano Felix Organization or the Sinaloa Federation. Starting in 2012, regional crime bosses who operated under the Sinaloa Federation umbrella began to fight one another in Sinaloa state. And in some cases in Sonora state, such as with Sajid "El Cadete" Quintero Navidad — who once operated under the Sinaloa Federation banner — crime bosses had realigned with Sinaloa Federation rivals like Trinidad "El Chapo Trini" Olivas Valenzuela. Before his capture in 2014, Guzman proved unable to fight against the overarching fracturing of organized crime. While Guzman was in prison, the once-consolidated trafficking circles continued to unravel in Sinaloa and other states such as Baja California Sur.
The Sinaloa Federation effectively no longer exists as a single, cohesive organization. Exceedingly powerful Sinaloa-based crime bosses remain, including Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia, Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza Moreno, Damaso "El Licenciado" Lopez Nunes, and Fausto Isidro "El Chapo Isidro" Meza Flores. Collectively, these crime bosses control the vast majority of Sinaloa-based organized crime activities, but all are effectively running their own criminal organizations, at times working together and in some instances clashing violently. Guzman will use his newfound freedom to build up his enterprise once more, but he will be one of many powerful bosses, rather than the head of a single trafficking ring.
Tamaulipas-Based Organized Crime
As stated in our 2015 annual cartel update, Los Zetas were both poised to expand — as one of the widest operating of the cohesive crime groups remaining in Mexico — but ultimately suffer from the inevitable breakdown that all crime groups in Mexico face. Los Zetas had expanded into Zacatecas in early this year in an attempt to reclaim territory lost to the Velazquez network (also commonly called Los Talibanes, or simply the Gulf cartel). But many of the organization's leading members were arrested by Mexican federal troops in 2015, including the head of the group, Omar "Z-42" Trevino Morales. These losses have possibly fueled internal disputes and likely aided rivals, particularly in Nuevo Leon, Veracruz and Tabasco states, in challenging Los Zetas' position in the region.
In June, violence erupted in the Monterrey area of Nuevo Leon among rival cartels. In one of many incidents, a shooting at a Corona beer distribution center in Garcia left 10 people dead. Though Los Zetas were certainly involved given their presence in the area, precisely which other organizations played a role is not yet certain, particularly since now there are several crime groups calling themselves the Gulf cartel.
In August, attacks in Veracruz and Tabasco states revealed the growing strength of Los Zetas' rivals there as well in regions that have traditionally been strongholds for the Tamaulipas-based cartel. As-yet unidentified shooters killed a Los Zetas regional boss and his second-in-command Aug. 13 in a bar in Orizaba, Veracruz state. Such a leadership loss for Los Zetas at the hands of a rival, particularly in that region, is rare. Even as rivals confront Los Zetas, however, turf wars have not significantly raised overall levels of violence in Veracruz and Tabasco states.
Tierra Caliente-Based Organized Crime
As Stratfor also stated in its 2015 annual cartel update, the decline of both Tamaulipas- and Sinaloa-based organized crime has enabled a third regional criminal umbrella to emerge from the Tierra Caliente region in southwest Mexico. Tierra Caliente groups such as La Familia Michoacana that once operated under crime groups from one of the two other regional umbrella organizations had begun to expand on their own in 2010. While La Familia Michoacana and then its successor, the Knights Templar, have been weakened from fighting with criminal rivals and security forces, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion has since risen to lead the expansion of Tierra Caliente organized crime.
Given Sinaloa- and Tamaulipas-based organized crime's continued devolution, Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion faces much less resistance from rivals as it expands into states like Baja California, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Veracruz. Nevertheless, it still has competitors in the Tierra Caliente region where it is based, including Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos, La Familia Michoacana, the remnants of the Knights Templar, and even civilian militias commonly referred to as self-defense militias or community police. As a result, Mexico's southwest region remains the center of organized crime-related violence in Mexico.
The breakdown of the Sinaloa Federation and decline of Los Zetas have pushed the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion into the national spotlight. In 2015, Mexico City renewed its largely ineffective efforts to combat the criminal organization. But the government has been distracted by social unrest in country's south and southwest, spurred by the Sept. 26 abduction of normalistas in Iguala, Guerrero state, and organized by militant teacher unions protesting against education reform. Since Mexico's June 7 national elections, however, unrest has fallen drastically while protesting teacher unions at the moment appear to have lost their capabilities to organize massive demonstrations that could overwhelm security forces. Federal troops will likely have more freedom to target Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion leadership.
The continued fighting among the various crime groups, albeit occurring at lower and more localized levels, has resulted in levels of homicides in 2015 comparable to those seen in 2014. There were 9,601 intentional homicides nationwide from January to July 2015, compared with 9,317 during the same time period of 2014. Overall, violence is not likely to substantially decline by the end of 2015.
While each year Mexico's organized crime as a whole breaks down further, its sources of revenue are actually expanding. As a result, even lower-level crime groups still enjoy wealth to carry out turf wars with rivals, to evade targeted operations by federal troops and to expand despite rising competition.
As with each year since 2012, all evidence indicates that the Balkanization of organized crime in Mexico will carry on. Mexico's two most powerful crime groups, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation, will continue to fragment, possibly facing their inevitable demise. Meanwhile, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion will seemingly expand and consolidate territory — as did Los Zetas until 2013. However, as with its Tierra Caliente rivals such as La Familia Michoacana and the Knights Templar, this expansion will still attract the attention of the Mexican government, and the ensuring crackdowns will likely further fracture the drug trade in the country.